Thoughts About Creeley’s “Return”

Quiet as is proper for such places;

The street, subdued, half-snow, half-rain,

Endless, but ending in the darkened doors.

Inside, they who will be there always,

Quiet as is proper for such people –

Enough for now to be here, and

To know my door is one of these.

Creeley’s first published poem in “The Charm” turns out, characteristically, to be a kind of half-sentence, a disjointed though somehow coherent stuttering utterance.  His stuttering lends itself to a poetic project that makes an aesthetic out of indecisiveness and a type of thought that often feels both rawer and more counter-intuitive than our typical streams of connected thoughts.  But are our thoughts that connected?  This seems to be a constant question asked by Creeley in his poems, even obsessed over.  For how do we think?  Our more flattering selves would like to imagine that, in our casual daydreams, we spin Proustian webs of associational memories and perceptions.  But Creeley’s poetic seems to disdain this type of flattery, or for that matter any flattery at all.  There is often the sense in his poems that he wishes to get to the bottom of things; and that, at the bottom, we do not find a soul or a coherent self, but rather a dumb kind of groan of pain, an anguished moaning, which is ultimately, Creeley might say, pessimistically or realistically, the kind of sounds we dying animals ultimately are good for.  That is what I mean when I say that Creeley is counter-intuitive; it is because he cherishes, or at least chooses to focus on, the feelings we tend to avoid – the awkward, the abrupt, the brusque, the angry, the rageful.

“Return,” though on the surface would seem like a quiet lyric meditation on returning home, actually comes closer to the Creelyan aesthetic of counter-intuitiveness and indecisiveness.  It is a picture of suppression: “The street, subdued, half-snow, half-rain,  Endless, but ending in the darkened doors”.  He is already playing with paradoxes; here we hear of a street that is “endless,” and yet it ends in shadowy doors.  We hear nothing about the people inside the doors, no sounds coming from the night, no colors.  We don’t even know where we are.  We only know that it is a place Creeley is contemplating, and that “proper for such places” is a quiet, a sort of muteness, a silence that seems welcome even it feels interminable, akin to “they,” the faceless others, “who will be there always.”  In the hands of another poet, we might then get some meditation about what it means to “be there always,” for the phrase connotes something that, though impossible to pin down, suggests social commentary: yet is Creeley speaking dourly, of lives without change, without color, without anything worth remembering?  Is this a poem of exhaustion, or a poem of a sort of muddled respect?  Or is Creeley just trying, through his abstractions and his lack of embellishment, to give us the opposite of our peak moments, to give us a kind of lifepoem that represents how we think at times in our private hours?

Perhaps we can start by thinking about the pauses and line-breaks in this poem, for Creeley often gives away hints about how to read his poems through his line-breaks.  “Quiet as is proper for such places” ends abruptly in a semi-colon, and then we are launched into a street scene, perhaps sometime in late February, where the world is cold and quiet, grey and white.  The poet is perhaps standing in a doorway, noticing the world about him.  When we are turned into “Endless,” it is not clear if this turn is intended to be met by us with a type of reverence or a type of horror, nor is it clear if Creeley speaks of “they who will be there always” with derision or admiration.  But the Audenesque ending is a sign of the young Creeley deciding not to reach for false conclusions; he merely stays with the scene, but in doing so gives us a picture that makes an artfulness out of the desire to not embellish.  (Still, the last line suggests a kind of precocious contentment that Creeley will jettison as he develops as a poet.)

The title, then, “Return” might be read as a mental marker for Creeley’s obsession with returning to a way of thinking that does not idealize, that is in fact afraid of idealization, that will even call attention to itself idealizing in a poem if that is the obstacle to overcome in the poem.  We can almost seen or imagine Creeley uttering “return” to himself with clenched teeth, as he approaches the white page again and attempts, in his unflinching way, to grit his teeth and get on with the project of living, of writing.  “Return,” we hear him saying, “and return again,” as if his only hope is the poem, even as the poem itself must be shorn of anything and everything falsely intuitive, falsely counter-intuitive.  Creeley reaches into himself in this precocious first poem from “The Charm,” and he comes up with a poem about quietness, suppression, interminability, endlessness, and the ability or lack thereof of speaking, of finding the right words that will be “enough for now.”

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